Remember the Goodness of the Good News
The central word for Christians, especially evangelicals. We hear it so often, it is used so much, that the real possibility is that it has lost its meaning. Like the old Jon Lovitz appearance on “Friends” (S1E15), “The One with the Stoned Guy”, the character Steve says, “Tartlets. Tartlets…tartlets. The word has lost all meaning.”
We have “gospel-centered ministries”, “gospel-centered preaching”, “gospel missions”, and so on. Gospel. Gospel…gospel. The word has lost all meaning.
Let’s recover the meaning, shall we?
The word “gospel” translates from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, or “euaggelion”. The two gammas (Greek “g’s”) together make an “ng” sound — like in “Tang”. Furthermore, the “eu” often got changed to the Latinized “ev”, and meant “good”. “αγγέλους” (angelous) is Greek for Angel, or messenger. One can therefore see how we would get “evangel” in English, and the rough translation “good news/message”.
In the landscape of ancient Greek literature, extending through the 1st century but steering clear of the New Testament for now so as to not be circular, this term εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) carried an interwoven web of meanings, predominantly centered around the concept of delivering good news or significant announcements. This term, with its versatile applications, painted a vivid picture of the diverse aspects of Greek life, from the battlefield to the political to the realm of philosophical discourse.
Originally, εὐαγγέλιον found its roots in the context of military victories. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides vividly depicted scenes where messengers, brimming with news of triumphs and conquests, were heralds of εὐαγγέλιον. This imagery underscored the term’s role in communicating pivotal moments that shaped the fate of city-states and empires.
Beyond the clangor of warfare, εὐαγγέλιον seamlessly wove itself into the fabric of everyday life, marking joyous personal milestones such as births or marriages, especially in noble circles. It also resonated within the political arena of Greek city-states, encapsulating announcements of political significance — the forging of beneficial treaties, the ascendancy of popular leaders, or the enactment of laws that promised prosperity and well-being.
In the realm of literature and philosophy, εὐαγγέλιον was embraced metaphorically, symbolizing the enlightenment brought forth through wisdom or philosophical insights. Here, the term transcended its literal confines, becoming a vessel for intellectual and spiritual illumination.
However, it was in the imperial context, particularly poignant during the Roman period of the 1st century, that εὐαγγέλιον took on a profound and expansive significance. In this era, the term was skillfully adapted to the grandeur and political machinations of the Roman Empire. It came to denote the proclamations related to the emperor — be it celebrating his achievements, marking his birth, or heralding his accession to the throne. This adaptation of εὐαγγέλιον underscored its role as a potent tool in the narrative of imperial propaganda, a narrative that sought to intertwine the emperor’s persona with the destiny and well-being of the empire itself.
Building on the imperial connotations of εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Roman context, the New Testament, and particularly the writings of Paul, repurposed this term to convey a revolutionary message. In the New Testament, εὐαγγέλιον transforms into a proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, framing it as the ultimate good news that offers salvation and a new kingdom fundamentally in competition to the message and purpose of that of Caesar and Rome.
Paul, in his epistles, strategically employs εὐαγγέλιον to contrast the Christian message with the imperial narrative. Where the Roman use of εὐαγγέλιον centered around the emperor’s achievements, authority, and the political might of the empire, Paul and other New Testament writers redefined it as a message of spiritual liberation, divine grace, and the establishment of God’s kingdom. This kingdom, as presented in the Christian narrative, was not one of limited earthly power and political dominion, but rather an ultimately cosmos-wide and eternal kingdom established by Christ. This built upon the idea submitted by Christ in the Great Commission, that the basis for converting and discipling the nations was a result of all power being granted to Him.
In this context, εὐαγγέλιον becomes a subversive term. It challenges the Roman imperial ideology by presenting Jesus Christ as the true Lord and King, a direct counterpoint to the emperor. This redefinition was both radical and risky, as it implicitly undermined the authority and divinity claims of the Roman Emperor, which grew with each iteration. By proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the early Christians were not merely sharing a religious belief but were also making a political statement.
Moreover, Paul’s use of εὐαγγέλιον emphasizes the universal nature of Christ’s message, transcending the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Roman euangelion, which reinforced the existing social and political order, the Christian euangelion promised inclusion, redemption, and hope to all people, regardless of their status or nationality. This universal appeal was a key factor in the spread of Christianity across the diverse populations of the Roman Empire.
The New Testament’s appropriation of εὐαγγέλιον represents a strategic and theologically loaded reworking, or perhaps what today we’d call “rebranding”, of the term. It reflects a deliberate contrast with Roman imperial propaganda, presenting the Christian gospel as a salvific alternative to the power and authority of Caesar and Rome.
In the continuum of the term εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), from its imperial Roman connotations to its transformative use in the New Testament, we observe a fascinating evolution that reaches into modern Evangelical Protestantism. While the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul, recast εὐαγγέλιον as a deeply political and subversive message, contrasting the dominion of Rome with the spiritual kingdom of Christ, modern Evangelical Protestantism has, in many ways, distilled this term into a more individualized and doctrinal message, often emphasizing “the gospel” as a formula for personal salvation through faith alone.
In the New Testament context, as we’ve seen, εὐαγγέλιον was a bold and multifaceted proclamation. It was not just about spiritual salvation; it was also a declaration of a new kind of kingdom, one that stood in stark contrast to the power and glory of the Roman Empire. This gospel was revolutionary, challenging the prevailing social and political structures, and proclaiming a new lordship in Jesus Christ, a direct affront to the imperial claims of the Roman emperors.
Fast forward to modern Evangelical Protestantism, and we see a significant shift in emphasis. The richly political and communal aspects of εὐαγγέλιον have been largely overshadowed by a focus on individual salvation and personal faith. This version of “the gospel” is often presented as a simple formula: belief in Christ as one’s personal savior ensures justification and eternal life. This interpretation is deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation, particularly in the theology of figures like Martin Luther, who emphasized justification by faith alone as the central tenet of Christian belief.
This doctrinal focus, while profoundly meaningful for many believers, diverges from the broader and more communal implications of εὐαγγέλιον as used in the New Testament. In its original context, the gospel was not just about individual salvation; it was a call to a new way of life, a new community, and a new social order. It was a message that challenged the status quo and invited believers into a transformative journey that had both personal and collective dimensions.
In modern Evangelical Protestantism, the emphasis on personal faith and individual salvation, though powerful and central to its doctrine, tends to underplay the communal, societal, and indeed political implications of the New Testament gospel. This shift reflects broader changes in the way religious faith is understood and practiced in the modern world, often focusing more on personal spirituality and less on communal or societal transformation.
Thus, while the term “gospel” in both contexts speaks to the profound impact of Christ’s message, its interpretation and emphasis have undergone significant changes. From a radical, communal, and politically charged proclamation in the New Testament, it has evolved into a more individualized and doctrinal message in modern Evangelical Protestantism, reflecting the diverse and evolving nature of Christian thought and practice through the ages.
When we flatten the “good news” to a simple theological formula, we often get side effects that aren’t listed on the warning label. The richness of a truly Christian culture is deemphasized. The themes of the growth and maturation of man and mankind are lost to a simple conversionism that resembles a concert and a TED Talk about fire insurance.
But perhaps the biggest setback caused by flattening the message of “The Gospel” is that it allows Pastors to ignore the requirements that are part and parcel of the pledge of allegiance implied when we are called to “obey the gospel”.
This exhortation to “obey the gospel” can be understood in the context nature of εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) that we’ve explored. This term, which evolved from its Roman imperial connotations to a profoundly subversive and redemptive message in the New Testament, calls for a response that is not just intellectual assent but an active, transformative obedience. We should remember that the demons believe, and “shudder”.
In the New Testament, particularly in Paul, “obeying the gospel” is not simply about adhering to a set of doctrinal beliefs or engaging in religious rituals. Instead, it is about embracing a new way of life that aligns with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. This obedience is a response to the revolutionary message of Christ, which contrasts starkly with the prevailing social, political, and religious norms of the Roman Empire.
To “obey the gospel” in this context means to participate in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed—a kingdom characterized by values like love, justice, mercy, and humility. This obedience involves a radical reorientation of one’s life, priorities, and relationships. It’s not just a personal or private matter but has communal and societal implications. It calls for a commitment to live out the principles of the gospel in every aspect of life, including how one interacts with society and exercises power and influence.
This exhortation challenges the status quo, just as the early Christian message did in its original Roman context. It implies a loyalty and allegiance to Christ that supersedes other allegiances, whether they be political, cultural, or social. In a world where the emperor’s word was law and his person was almost divine, to “obey the gospel” was to assert that true authority and ultimate allegiance belonged to Christ, not Caesar.
In summary, the New Testament’s call to “obey the gospel” is a call to active engagement with the transformative message of Christ. It’s an invitation to be part of a new kingdom, one that operates on principles radically different from those of the prevailing culture. This obedience is comprehensive, affecting not just personal beliefs and morals, but also public behavior, social relationships, and societal structures. It represents a holistic commitment to the way of life and the new social order that Jesus Christ inaugurated.
This understanding, this correct understanding of εὐαγγέλιον, of “the gospel”, stands in direct contrast to that which would lead a long-term preacher of such to suggest that the followers of Christ participate in pagan festivals, even if they happen to be called weddings. We shouldn’t be pharisaic in our understanding of how to apply standards of Christian living, but we should be faithful to the very real Kingdom that Jesus Christ, our present King, has established in The Gospel.
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